Me, Myself, and Musicals

Chris Lynn
Have you ever been asked, “What is your favorite musical?”  Have you ever been asked to list your top 10 musicals? For me this is a daunting and impossible task.  If you are like me, your favorites change depending on mood and situation. In the past year I tried to dig deeper and identify a common theme shared by some of my favorites which will undoubtedly change even while writing this blog!  What are your favorites? More importantly, what connection or common strand places these musicals at the top of your list? Please share and discuss in the comments below.

All of my favorite musicals in the list below involve rational selfishness.  I enjoy strong characters that think and act for themselves and create opportunities that were previously not within their grasp.  Wait! Did this blogger really say that his favorite shows include “selfish” characters?... Yes, he did. However, please note that I specified characters that display the moral value of “rational selfishness.”  By rational selfishness, I mean to say that these characters earn happiness through hard work, determination, and radical individualism. Typically, people who attempt to make gains at the cost, detriment, or harm of another fall short eventually and never truly find happiness.  Some call it karma,but I don’t believe in mysticism. I call it what most people think when they hear the word selfish: “irrational selfishness.” Bear with me folks, I must differentiate between rational and irrational selfishness. I will wrap this back to musicals. I promise!  

One of the most famous irrationally selfish people was ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff.  Prosecutors estimated the Madolf’s fraud amounted to $64.8 billion with his 4,800 clients.  Madoff’s irrational selfishness landed him in prison in 2008 where he remains as an 81 year old man.  Aftermath of the exposure to his fraud included Madoff’s brother imprisoned for 10 years, the suicide of one of his two sons that turned him into authorities, as well as an attempted suicide by both Madoff himself and his wife.  As irony would have it, Madoff admits that he is happier now in prison despite overwhelming guilt and nightmares for destroying his family and the countless lives of others. In his free life, Madoff could never enjoy his exuberant wealth.  Madoff said he realized that his scam would eventually be exposed and he lived his once free life imprisoned by fear and constant cover up.  

On the flipside, typically, people who practice in “rational selfishness”, where others are not preyed upon, end up helping others, intentionally and incidentally, in return. These characters are the focus of my favorite musicals.  As we have all learned from Avenue Q:

“When you help others,

You can’t help helping yourself!

Every time you 

Do good deeds

You’re also serving

Your own needs.”



My Top 10

10. Mame

Jerry Herman, known for his exuberantly happy and joyful shows, brought the character of Mame Dennis to life in song.  Nothing describes Mame’s zeal for life and her own happiness better than the line, 

“Live, Live, Live!  Life is a banquet and most poor sons-of-bitches are starving to death!”  

As a socialite in the roaring 20s, Mame only wanted the best happiness for herself as well as those around her.  She imparts this intellectual freewheeling lifestyle philosophy to her 10 year old nephew, Patrick, who has been entrusted to her care after the death of her brother.  Even during the low times in her life when Mame loses her fortunes in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, she still retains her unyielding Herman-esque optimism:

Mame: “Well, once I taught you all to live each living day.

Fill up the stocking,”

Young Patrick: “But Auntie Man, it's one week from Thanksgiving Day now.

Mame: “But we need a little Christmas

Right this very minute,

Candles in the window,

Carols at the spinet.

Yes, we need a little Christmas now!”

While, Mame later regains fortune as well as love when she marries Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, a Southern aristocrat, she does not allow Beauregard’s later untimely death to dampen her spirits.  Mame returns home to impart the joy of individualism and happiness to a new generation: her great nephew (Peter), Patrick’s son.  

We all could learn from the “Mame’s” of the world to live our lives as if “It’s Today” and to

“Open a new window,

Open a new door,

Travel a new highway,

That's never been tried before”...

“Whenever they say you're slightly unconventional,

Just put your thumb up to your nose.

And show 'em how to dance to a new rhythm.”

Dear Auntie Mame, as we “grow a little older, grow a little colder” you remind us that 

“There's a ‘thank you’ you can give life,

If you live life all the way.

Pull the stops out,

Hold the roof down,

Fellows watch out,

It's today.”

9. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Just because you might be at the bottom rung of a ladder, doesn’t mean you cannot “move upwards and onwards.”  Just ask the young, ambitious window washer, J. Pierrepont Finch.  In How to Succeed..., Finch rises from window washer to the mailroom to chairman of the board of the World Wide Wicket Company.  Just don’t ask me or anyone else in the company, “what is a wicket?”

I will have to note that this musical, falls more into the category of “irrational selfishness” as Finch uses deception, trickery, and downright sabotage of fellow employees to rise to the top.  Thus, “How to Succeed...” is near the bottom of my top 10. I just cannot resist Finch’s devilish grin and charm as he dupes Mr. Biggley's lazy, arrogant, moocher of a nephew, Bud Frump, who only remains in the company due to nepotism.  If How to Succeed..., were a bit more realistic, we would see the chips eventually fall and Finch’s irrational selfishness would catch up with him.  However, the show is satire at its finest and great escapism. If anything else, Finch is admirable for his drive to ignore Mr. Twimble’s advice to remain status quo in the mailroom near the bottom of the success ladder: 

Finch: “Your brain is a company brain.”

Mr. Twimble: “The company washed it, 

Now I can't complain.”

Finch: “You'll never rise up to the top”

Mr. Twimble:“But there's one thing clear,

Whoever the company fires 

I will still be here!”

Finch “Oh, how can you get anywhere?”

Mr. Twimble: “Junior have no fear. 

Whoever the company fires

I will still be here.

Year, after year, after fiscal,

Never take a risko year!”

I also love Finch’s unwavering ego and laser focus that proves to serve him well with the love song to himself:

“I believe in you

And when my faith in my fellow man

Oh but falls apart,

I've but to feel your hand grasping mine

And I take heart,

I take heart.

To see the cool clear

Eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth,

Yet with the slam, bang, tang

Reminiscent of gin and vermouth.

Oh, I believe in you,”

We could all use a healthy dose of rational egoism like Finch’s by believing in ourselves.  While How to Succeed... is a delicious satire of corporate office culture and sexism, I cannot help myself to imagine how fun it would be to mount a production where the tables were turned.  Imagine, if the roles of the men and women were reversed with the story set in an alternate universe. Imagine the women gawking and treating the male secretaries as toys (“A Secretary is Not a Toy”) or even a dumb hunky jock in the role of Hedy LaRue.  I imagine seeing the women applying lipstick and makeup as they plot to stop Finch, stiletto heels and all, in the executive boardroom. I know, one would need to obtain permission, nonetheless it is fun to imagine and dream.

8. Book of Mormon

What do you get when you juxtapose atheists and agnostic writers and a satirical musical about faith? You get The Book of Mormon of course!  Matt Stone once said the “Book of Mormon” is

 “an atheist’s love letter to religion... Now, I don’t think that every Mormon will necessarily like what this love letter says, but it’s our version of, ‘Hey, we think religion is really cool, here’s what we think about it.’ And it’s a musical, so it’s gotta have a feel-good end, and it’s gotta have a big heart, a big story. And that’s the only way to really tackle talking about religion in narratives, is treat the people in them like really good people who are trying to do the right thing.”

The Book of Mormon includes a selfish character, not unlike any of us theatre folk that crave the spotlight.  While well intentioned and an overall good guy, Elder Kevin Price desires fame and is only willing to give his sidekick Elder Arnold Cunningham credit in the form of table scraps in the song “You and Me” (But Mostly Me):

“And now we’re seeing eye to eye,

It’s so great we can agree!

That Heavenly Father has chosen

You and me

Just mostly me!

Something incredible…

I’ll do something incredible!

I want to be the Mormon..

That changed all of mankind…

I’m something I’ve forseen...

Now that I’m nineteen,

I’ll do something incredible,

That blows Gods freaking mind!”

By the finale both Elder Price and Elder Cunnigham have learned through their journey, that they both have value and strive for one another’s happiness just a day at a time:

“What happens when we're dead?

We shouldn't think that far ahead

The only latter day that matters is tomorrow.

The skies are clearing and the sun's coming out.

It's a latter day tomorrow.

Put your worries and your sorrows and your cares away

and focus on a latter day.

Tomorrow is a latter day!”

7.  “Fiddler On The Roof”

The beloved Tevye is selfish?  Well, yes. Not in a Bernie Madoff way, but in a good way.  What is it that Tevye selfishly wants more than anything? Does he want to be a rich man?  Does he want social status?

“The most important men in town would come to fawn on me!

They would ask me to advise them,

Like a Solomon the Wise.

If you please, Reb Tevye..

Pardon me, Reb Tevye...

Posing problems that would cross a rabbi's eyes!

And it won't make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong.

When you're rich, they think you really know!”

Does Tevye want to have a deeper understanding and relationship with God whom he speaks to throughout the musical?

“If I were rich, I'd have the time that I lack

To sit in the synagogue and pray.

And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall.

And I'd discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day.

That would be the sweetest thing of all.”

Or does Tevye desire one thing above all others?  Above riches, he gives Tzeitel and Motel his blessing for their marriage.  Tevye chooses to renege on his arranged marriage agreement with the wealthy Lazar Wolf and his daughter.  Tevye does not “sacrifice” riches. That would imply material wealth is more valuable that his daughter’s happiness, which in turn brings him happiness.  Sacrifice? Absolutely not, his love and desire for his daughter’s happiness is just that much greater of a value than Lazar Wolf’s money.

Motel:

“I have wanted to ask you for some time, 

Reb Tevye, but first I wanted to save up for my own sewing machine.”

Tevye : 

“Stop talking nonsense. You're just a poor tailor.”

Motel: 

“That's true, Reb Tevey, but even a poor tailor is entitled to some happiness. 

I promise you, Reb Tevye , your daughter will not starve.”

Tevye: 

“He's beginning to talk like a man. 

But what kind of match would that be, with a poor tailor? 

On the other hand, he's an honest, hard worker. 

On the other hand, he has absolutely nothing. On the other hand,

Things could never get worse for him, they could only get better. 

They gave each other a pledge-unheard of, absurd. 

They gave each other a pledge-unthinkable. 

But look at my daughter's face-she loves him, 

She wants him-and look at my daughters’ eyes, so hopeful.”

Tevye continues to place his daughters’ happiness above other values including his Jewish faith and traditions when he says goodbye to Hodel who leaves to join Perchik in Siberia.  Tevye tries to “maintain balance” with his daughter, Chava. After accepting the marriages of two of his daughters, marriage outside the Jewish faith is a line Tevye will not cross… or so we are led to believe.  Toward the end of the musical, Tevye’s defenses are down as his family must leave Anatevka and say their farewells. While he earlier disowned his daughter, Chava, and even said “She is dead to me,” seeing that he has the power to bring happiness to his daughter changes everything.  He gives a stage whisper to Tzeitel as she repeats to Chava, “God be with you.”

The irony of “Fiddler on the Roof” lies in the last words of the opening number: 

“Tradition. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as ... as a fiddler on the roof!”

For Tevye, at least, his rational selfishness to abandon his traditions in order to ensure his daughters’ happiness built a stronger foundation and bond than faith could have ever secured. 

6. Big River

In the musical Big River, once again, we see a character (Huckleberry Finn) not so much sacrifice a value, but rather trade a lesser value (Going on more adventures) for a greater value (setting his friend and slave, Jim, free):

“All right, I'll go to hell! 

And I'll take up wickedness again, which is my line, bein' brought up to it. For a starter, I'll steal Jim out of slavery again. And, If I can think of somethin' worse, I'll do that too! Cuz as long as I'm in, and in for good, I might as well go whole hog!”

Jim and Huckleberry sing about their shared value of one another in the unlikeliest of companionships of those times:

“I see the friendship in you eyes

That you see in mine

But we're worlds apart, worlds apart

Together, but worlds apart”

Yes, Huckleberry Finn is delightfully egotistical when he sings about himself.  However, what was unconventional during Huck’s time (the abolition of slavery) is now conventional.  Despite threats of going to hell, Huckleberry bucked the system and announced all that would hear his selfish anthem:

“I, Huckleberry, me

Hereby declare myself to be

Nothin' ever other than

Exactly what I am”

5.  Pippin

Wow! Read the lyrics below and observe what an incredible selfish person Pippin is!

“So many men seem destined 

To settle for something small

But I won't rest until I know I'll have it all”....

I've got to be where my spirit can run free

Got to find my corner of the sky”

Much like Princeton in Avenue Q who searches for his purpose, so does Pippin!  He tries everything! He joins his father’s Army by going into battle.. Then with the advice of his grandmother, Bertha, he frolics and frocks and frolics with woman after woman!  Pippin soon discovers that even the meaningless and countless sexual encounters leave him as unfulfilled as slaughtering the Visigoths for his father, King Charlemange. Pippin turns back to serious pursuits once again by becoming a revolutionary, a politician, and even king.  Again, Pippin is disappointed by disillusion. He even compromises his high aspirations and tries to settle down and live a humble life with a woman (Catherine) and her child (Theo). With all hope lost, Pippin is tempted by the Leading players and the troupe to make his mark in a burst of flames and glory by committing suicide. Pippin realizes that he has given up his extraordinary purpose for the simplest and most ordinary life of all, and he is finally a happy man. Did Pippin sacrifice for a more humble modest life?  Of course not! All of those previous ambitions and attempts proved to be of lesser value as the one thing with the greatest value that was there all along!

“I'm not a river or a giant bird 

That soars to the sea

And if I'm never tied to anything

I'll never be free

I wanted magic shows and miracles

Mirages to touch

I wanted such a little thing from life

I wanted so much

I never came close, my love

We never came near

It never was there

I think it was here”


4. Sunday In the Park With George

George is a selfish character.  He is actually selfish to the point of cruelty.  Dot knows all of this about George and his quest for self fulfillment with his painting should come as no surprise as she decides to move on and leave him:

“What I feel?

You know exactly how I feel.

Why do you insist

You must hear the words,

When you know I cannot give you words?

Not the ones you need.

There's nothing to say.

I cannot be what you want....

You will not accept who I am.

I am what I do-

Which you knew,

Which you always knew,

Which I thought you were a part of!”

Later in Act 2, a modern day artist struggling to come to terms with his artistic decisions has a vision of his great grandmother, Dot.  She advises him to stop agonizing, just make a decision, and to move on:

“I chose, and my world was shaken-

So what?

The choice may have been mistaken,

The choosing was not

You have to move on”

As the actors from the painting tableau leave, the stage resembles a blank canvas, George in present time reads:

 "White: a blank page or canvas. His favorite – so many possibilities."

The most creative and selfish people in the world, George Suerat, Charles Borlung, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, arrogantly took the risk of making choices, moving on, and creating a more beautiful world.  Inevitably, many of these choices were made in favor of lesser values, in their eyes, of sometimes human relationships. Sunday in the Park is not only the story of an obsessed artist’s life, but also that of an entrepreneur, a mover, a relentless innovator.

3. Into the Woods

What do you wish? What do you want, “more than 

anything in the world?”

In her infinite wisdom and striking irony, the witch reminds us that we are all selfish, yet she is the only one that will honestly admit it.  Into the Woods is a cautionary tale which teaches us that having a wish is not nearly as important as reflecting on if that wish is what we truly want and how we go about getting our wish.  For me, the witch, rather than the narrator, is the true storyteller and teacher in the musical Into the Woods.  Even if some of the lyrics and dialogue are not hers, it is “her story” to tell: 

Cinderella's Mother: Do you know what you wish?

Are you certain what you wish 

Is what you want?

Sadly, the baker’s wife, in my opinion is the antithesis of the witch.  I find the witch to be the most rational and thus most moral character. Whereas the baker’s wife is the most irrational and immoral character.  She tells an opposing view from the witch. Actions are justified as long as you get your wish. According to the baker’s wife:

“What matters is that

Everyone tells tiny lies.

What's important, really is, the size.

Only three more tries and we'll have our prize.

When the end's in sight,

You'll realize:

If the en is right,

It justifies

The beans

If you have seen Into the Woods, you will realize that the consequence for irrationality that befell the Baker’s Wife (SPLAT!) The witch culminates her story with the moral that our decisions indeed have consequences that are far reaching even beyond our own lives.  

“Careful the wish you make 

Wishes are children

Careful the path they take

Wishes come true, not free

Careful the spell you cast

Not just on children

Sometimes the spell may last

Past what you can see

And turn against you

Careful the tale you tell

That is the spell

Children will listen”

Blindly stealing, lying, and betrayal in order to get your wish is irrational.  On the other hand, if you are rationally selfish in life, you CAN successfully “go into the woods:

“To mind

To heed

To find

To think

To teach

To join

To go to the Festival!”

2. Children of Eden

Children of Eden is my favorite musical that people have some familiarity.  Much like Into the Woods, we are reminded that a huge part of rational selfishness is to not only the importance of being free to make ones’ own decisions and make ones’ own mistakes, but also to pass down that gift to our own children.  Eve is my all time favorite character. She is heroic in that she looked at life, knowledge, and decided to defy her father and take a bite. She recognized, contrary to notions of good and evil, that all knowledge from the tree was good:

“I see a mountain and I want to climb it

I river and I want to leave shore

Where there was nothing let there be something, something made by me

There's things waiting for me to invent them 

There's things waiting for me to explore

I am an echo of the eternal cry of

Let there be!

The spark of creation, burning bright within me

The spark of creation, won't let me rest at all

Until I discover or build or uncover

A thing that I can call, my celebration

Of the spark creation”

Sometimes forging out on our own as young adults, away from paradise, or even our parents’ basement, is scary.  However good we might have it, doing, achieving, and producing on ones’ own is much better than the dependency offered by a “paradise” before:

ADAM

“And I remember, in someone else's garden long ago

We had all we could eat”

EVE

“But it seems the fruit our own hands grow

Somehow tastes twice as sweet”

Now that I am a parent of two teenagers, one who will be moving to University in a few weeks, I am experiencing a fear from a different perspective.  My daughter has some chronic health issues, and I worry about her getting sick, taking medications, and becoming hospitalized while no longer under our wings.  Below are lyrics about letting go despite my fears. The song is sung by two fathers: God, to his son Noah and Noah, to his son Japeth:

“Oh this son of mine I love so well

And all the toil it takes

I'd give to him a garden and keep clear of snakes

But the one thing he most treasures is to make his own mistakes ohhh

He goes charging on the cliffs of life

A reckless mountaineer

I could help him not to stumble

I could warn him what to fear

I could shout until I'm breathless

And he'd still refuse to hear ohhh

But you cannot close the acorn

Once the oak begins to grow

And you cannot close your heart

To what it fears and needs to know

That the hardest part of love

Is the letting go.”

If we are not careful, our refusal to let go and using guilt will drive our children away. This musical hits “Close To Home” as both my brother and me have been estranged from our own parents.  Teach your children to selfishly pursue their goals. Then stand back and allow then the beauty of experience being their teacher and learning from their own mistakes:

“Fare thee well 

My precious children

In your hands

I place a key

To this prison

Made of gratitude

That has held you close to me

Now I know I cannot hold you

Till at last

I let you be!”


1. Three Questions: A Philosophical Oratorio

My all time favorite musical is one that no one has heard.  Well, I am sure there are some that have heard of it and even love it as much as I do.  If so, we must chat! Three Questions: A Philosophical Oratorio (later retitled Reason in Rhyme: A Philosophical Primer) is a song cycle based on philosophy and self.  Written by pianist and performer Robin Field, the musical is a one man show with a piano, an easel, chart paper, and a few Sharpie markers.  Below is a review of the show from 1979:

“‘What is so? How do you know? So, what should you do?’

These lyrics are from an oratorio, “Three Questions,” written by Robin Field. [...]

Trying to fit the names of Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Kant, Whitehead and Ayn Rand—yes, these names and more, too, mind you—plus their thoughts, into a 45-minute concert of light music … well … Robin actually did the unthinkable. He successfully married classical philosophy to musical comedy. He succeeded in writing beguiling, catchy music (of definite commercial quality) and he married it beautifully with lyrics of intellectual weight …

Robin did it with wit and intelligence. He managed to synthesize complex philosophical thoughts into easily understood fundamentals, wedding them happily with his bouncy, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, music. What’s more, I was delighted to find that Robin is a superb entertainer, accompanying himself on the piano.’

—Richard Buffum, April 19th, 1979, Los Angeles Times

Reading about Robin Field, you will learn that the philsophy of rational egostism or selfishness actually saved his life after a failed suicide attempt as a teenager.  Mr. Field reminds us unabashedly who and what is most important:

“The most important thing to me…. Is me. …

That much is true 

And so, I guess, the most important thing to you is you.”

Toward the end of the show, Field decides to have fun by playing and singing a medley that pokes fun at conventional wisdom found in popular songs that are counter to the philosophy he esouses.  Much of it is clichéd thinking of our age: that love is the answer; that others’ happiness is our responsibility; that passivity is good; that the man-made and the commercial are inferior to the natural; that it is a sin to be rich; that fatalism is sophisticated; that self-pity is acceptable; that confusion and defeat are man’s lot; that you should pretend to be happy if you are not; that everything will be OK as long as you did it “your way.”  His renditions are a tip of the hat to vaudeville, complete with impersonations to gain applause by “milking it” for laughs.

Well, that is all folks!  As I said in the beginning, my favorites can and do change.  Below are a few more “honorable mention” shows and quotes that promote rational selfishness.  One show that I have not seen, that follows this theme is “Shenendoah.” If you have seen “Shenendoah”, give me a shout out as well!

Honorable Mentions

1. Chicago

“I play in a game

Where I make the rules

And rule number one

From here to the end

Is 'I am my own best friend'

Three Musketeers

Who never say die

Are standing here this minute

Me, myself and I”

2. Be More Chill

“There are voices in my head

Of the voices in my head

The loudest one is mine!”

3. La Cage Aux Folles

“I deal my own deck

Sometimes the ace, sometimes the deuces.

There's one life, and there's no return and no deposit;

One life, so it's time to open up your closet.

Life's not worth a damn 'til you can say,

"Hey world, I am what I am!"

4. Avenue Q

(see the “Money Song” lyrics quoted at the beginning of this blog)

Farewell, friends.  

YOLO - You Only live life Once.  Live life abundantly!